Yoga for Beginners: The Best Poses to Get Started
You’ve been hearing about it for years. You may have even signed up for a class, then backed out at the last minute. We’re talking about yoga, and it’s time you gave this workout another look because it can increase strength, mobility, and flexibility in every part of your body. But don’t take our word for it; hear what a professional has to say.
We recently chatted with Alanna Zabel, founder of AZIAM and star of Element: Beginner Level Yoga, about the benefits of this exercise. She’s worked with the likes of Adam Levine and Emeka Okafor, which goes to show it’s not just a workout for the ladies. Below is an edited version of our conversation. Zabel even shared some of her favorite beginner moves, which means you can get started right now.
The Cheat Sheet: A lot of guys think of yoga as a women’s workout. What do they have to gain from giving it a try?
Alanna Zabel: We are seeing a fabulous new age of the male physique that is more well-rounded and balanced due to yoga- and Pilates-style exercises. This is even reflected in up-and-coming fashion. The old-school exercises that focus on major muscle groups often lead to imbalanced bodies, which leads to injuries. Yoga gives men a more well-rounded appearance and great function in all of their sports and hobbies.
CS: Beginners can sometimes feel intimidated. How can you get started without feeling overwhelmed?
AZ: The beauty of yoga is that it’s like art; you’re dealing with your own body as the medium and there’s no rush to true art. My advice to beginners is to enjoy the journey and take each day as it comes. And track your progress. That will help you commit to both your practice and your lifestyle.
CS: What things should newcomers expect when starting yoga? What’s the process?
AZ: As long as one progresses slowly, I most often hear people say they instantly feel lighter with an increased fluidity in their stature and everyday movements when they begin yoga. I agree with this, based on my own practice.
CS: Is it better for a beginner to get started in a studio or at home?
AZ: Neither is better. They’re just different. The beauty of practicing at home is that you can focus on how you feel, which creates a handful of other benefits you otherwise wouldn’t achieve. You might find a greater connection to yourself because you’re able to recognize your personal needs.
Working out at as studio can also be fun. The group energy can pull you through on days when you are a little more fatigued. Just be mindful not to get caught up in any competitive behaviors.
CS: What about those who aren’t particularly flexible? Will they be limited by what they can actually do?
AZ: Every pose in yoga can be modified and, oftentimes, making modifications will progress a student faster than plowing through advanced postures incorrectly. I often guide my male students to bend their knees in downward facing dog as this helps them get into their hamstrings without over-stretching their lower backs.
CS: You work with both male and female clients. Do they differ in their feedback or what they find most beneficial?
AZ: We’re just different, men and women. I’m sure I’m not the first to say that. Men tend to have more drive towards power- and strength-based poses. In my opinion, women tend to like to flow more, immersing the dance-like feel of vinyasa flow classes. The beautiful thing is they both love savasana and enjoy the benefits of calming and quieting their minds. The roads may differ, but the destination is the same.
CS: Everyone always feels they don’t have enough hours in the day. What do you have to say to those who feel like practicing yoga takes up too much time?
AZ: Oh, I get it! Ever since owning my own business, I truly understand how hard it is to schedule a workout. I used to tell my clients, “You have to make time,” and now I get it. It actually makes me a stronger teacher to better understand the busier, corporate lifestyle and juggling commitments.
I prefer that they get 45 minutes of a workout in. If they can’t commit to the 90-minute class, this is where a home practice is fabulous. I added a 10-minute guided meditation to my beginner yoga DVD, hoping that those on the go can also take time to align their awareness with the present moment around them before running to catch that train.
Doing something every day is the key, no matter how little or intense. One of my favorite Zen proverbs reads, “You should sit in mediation for 20 minutes every day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.”
No one should expect to be balancing on just their hands to start, so go for moves that don’t take quite as much technique. Zabel recommended getting your feet wet with this basic move, which she says is a “great pose to begin the process of lengthening and stretching your entire back.”
To get into child’s pose, start by kneeling on your mat. If you don’t have access to a yoga mat, make sure you have some sort of soft surface to help protect your knees. Spread your knees apart as wide as the mat, then sit back until your butt touches your heels. At the same time, bend forward as you extend your arms until your forehead comes close to the mat. It may not touch for beginners, so don’t push it.
Many yoga poses rely on strength in your midsection, but not in the same way as lifting weights. Zabel said cat pose “engages the entire abdominal wall so you can begin connecting to and moving from your core.” It’s about getting familiar with the sensation rather than shocking your abs.
Begin on all fours with your hands placed directly below your shoulders and your knees below your hips. Keep your shoulders pulled back, and arch your back as you look up and slightly toward the ceiling.
You can think of this pose as the partner move for cat pose. “Cow gently stretches the front side, including your chest, abdomen, and hip flexors, while strengthening the back,” Zabel said. Since most of us tend to be pretty tight through the hips, this is a great way to start improving mobility in the area.
You can start from cat pose or the same position on all fours. Press up through your hands and round your back and shoulders, keeping your stomach tight. Your head will tuck forward so your gaze is directed toward the back of the room.
Cobra is a fantastic beginner pose because it’s sort of an introduction to upward-facing dog, which may be a little bit too difficult. “It’s a beautiful, less intense pose to elongate and strengthen the back, creating balance on both the right and left sides,” Zabel said.
Lie face-down on the mat with your legs fully extended with the tops of your feet resting on the mat and your arms at your sides. Bring your hands just under your shoulders, and press up until your elbows are about halfway extended. You should feel a gentle stretch in your back.
This move will have you feeling like a true yogi. No matter the level, downward-facing dog is one of the most fundamental poses. Zabel called it a “full backside stretch that incorporates not only the muscles around the spinal column, but also the back of the legs, arms, and chest.
To get into downward-facing dog, begin on your hands and knees with your knees below your hips and your hands just a bit in front of your shoulders. Curl your toes under, then lift your knees and point your butt toward the ceiling, letting your heels drop as close to the ground as possible. Keep your head between your shoulders, and press into the ground through the base of your index finger. As Zabel mentioned earlier, it’s not unusual to have your knees bent when starting out, so go at your own pace.